JERUSALEM — Israel’s military said Monday there was a “high probability” that a soldier killed a prominent Al Jazeera journalist in the occupied West Bank last May, after announcing the results of its investigation into the killing.
In a briefing to reporters, a senior military official said a soldier opened fire after misidentifying Shirin Abu Akleh as an insurgent. But he provided no evidence to support Israel’s claim that Palestinian gunmen were present in the area and said no one would be punished. He also did not address video evidence showing the area was quiet before Abu Akle was shot.
The findings were the closest Israel has come to accepting responsibility for her death and followed a series of investigations media organizations and the United States, which concluded that Israel either fired, or most likely fired, the fatal shot. But it would hardly end the matter.
“He misidentified her,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under military briefing guidelines. “His real-time reports … absolutely point to misidentification.”
Abu Akle was wearing a helmet and vest that identified her as a press when she was killed in May while covering Israeli military strikes in the occupied West Bank.
The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem accused the army of carrying out a smear campaign.
“It wasn’t a mistake. This is politics,” the group said.
Al Jazeera’s local bureau chief, Walid Al-Omari, accused the army of trying to escape responsibility. “This is clearly an attempt to circumvent the opening of a criminal investigation,” he told The Associated Press.
The 51-year-old Palestinian American covered the West Bank for two decades and was a well-known face throughout the Arab world. Palestinians and Abu Akle’s family have accused Israel of deliberately killing her, and her death remains a major point of contention between the parties.
The official said the military could not definitively determine where the fire came from, saying there may have been Palestinian gunmen in the same area as the Israeli soldier. But he said the soldier shot the journalist “with a very high probability” and did so by mistake.
The official did not explain why witness accounts and video footage showed no combat activity in the area, and no gunfire near the barrage that struck Abu Akle and wounded another reporter.
He also did not say why the investigation took about four months, although he said Israel’s army chief asked for more information after the initial investigation. The official said the investigation was shared with the independent military prosecutor, who decided not to open a criminal investigation. That means no one will be charged in the shooting.
Abu Akleh’s family criticized the investigation, saying the army “tried to hide the truth and avoid responsibility” for the killing.
“Our family is not surprised by this outcome, as it is obvious to everyone that Israeli war criminals cannot investigate their own crimes. However, we remain deeply hurt, disappointed and disappointed,” they said in a statement. The family also reiterated their call for an independent investigation by the US and an investigation by the International Criminal Court.
Human rights groups say Israeli investigations into the killings of Palestinians are frequent lose weight over months or years before being quietly imprisoned and that soldiers are rarely held accountable.
Israel said she was killed during a complex battle with Palestinian militants and that only a forensic analysis of the bullet could confirm whether it was fired by an Israeli soldier or a Palestinian insurgent. However, a US-led analysis of the bullet last July was inconclusive because investigators said the bullet was badly damaged.
A reconstruction of her killing by the Associated Press supported witness accounts that she was killed by Israeli forces. Subsequent investigations by CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post reached similar conclusions, as did monitoring by the office of the UN human rights chief.
Abu Akle came to prominence two decades ago during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising against Israeli rule. It documents the harsh realities of life under Israeli military rule – now in its sixth decade with no end in sight – for viewers across the Arab world.
The Israeli police drew widespread criticism from around the world when beat mourners and shroud bearers at her funeral in Jerusalem on May 14. An Israeli newspaper reported that a police investigation had found wrongdoing by some of its employees, but said those who watched the event would not be seriously punished.
Jenin has long been a a stronghold of Palestinian militants, and several recent deadly attacks in Israel were carried out by young men from and around the city. Israel frequently carries out military raids in Jenin, which it says are aimed at arresting militants and preventing further attacks.
Israel captured the West Bank during the 1967 Middle East War and built settlements where nearly 500,000 Israelis live alongside nearly 3 million Palestinians. The Palestinians want the territory to be the main part of a future state.
Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.
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